For about a year, beginning in September 1988, the French writer Annie Ernaux lived in a state of exquisite torture. Torture, because the man with whom she was having a passionate affair was not only married but a citizen of a foreign country, to which, as the lovers knew from the start, he must return; they even knew the date. Exquisite, because of the “erotic splendor,” unlike anything she had experienced before. “In one month, we’ve gone from inept sex to a kind of perfection—well, almost,” she writes in her book Se perdre, first published in 2001 and now as Getting Lost in a translation by Alison L. Strayer. And a little later: “After yesterday, there isn’t much left of the Kama-Sutra for us to do.” Not to worry: Ernaux is soon at the bookstore, buying Treatise on Caresses and The Couple and Love: Techniques of Lovemaking. “I buy them for the perfection, the sublimation of the flesh,” she explains. It is her obsession:
I want perfection in love, as I believe I attained a kind of perfection in writing with A Woman’s Story.*
I make love with the same desire for perfection that I feel in relation to writing.
Now, I no longer seek truth in love, but the perfection of a relationship, beauty and pleasure.
All I dream of is this perfection, without yet being sure of attaining it—of being the “last woman,” the one who erases all the others, with her attentiveness, her skilled knowledge of his body: the “sublime affair.”
When they meet she is forty-eight but looks younger, still alluring enough to be regularly complimented and hit on. (Among Ernaux’s gifts is her ability to get across just how fabulous she looks and how good she is in bed without ever sounding distasteful.) She is also by this time one of France’s most esteemed writers—now winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—and the mother of two grown sons from an eighteen-year marriage, about which everything “stirs up a feeling of horror and pain with no way out.” In her third book, La Femme gelée, published in 1981 and translated by Linda Coverdale as A Frozen Woman in 1995, Ernaux writes scathingly about her years as a young wife and mother, a life all wrong for someone with her intellectual aspirations and one that she sees herself as having been deluded into by the rules of bourgeois society. “How could I ever have thought to find fulfillment in this?” she cries, in one of many despairing moments. Confessing how, in her misery and exhaustion from trying to balance a teaching job with caring for house, husband, and child, the only way to change her fate that she can think of is to have another baby, she writes, “I will never sink lower than that”—chilling words that have stayed with me since I first read them twenty-five years ago.
Her lover is in his mid-thirties, but he too looks younger: “a pretty boy” whose youthfulness—not just in appearance but because of a certain unsophistication and lack of character—inspires her tenderness. It “allows me to dote on him and gives me back my twenty-year-old self,” writes Ernaux, who twice describes her relationship to him as “both mother and whore.” “I’ve never intentionally said a single word to hurt him.” Not a word, for example, about his unsexy habit of never removing his socks. Making love, it is she who takes the lead.
As the relationship develops, and she gets to know him carnally very well, she learns little else about him. Later she reflects, “I am amazed that I did not ask more questions. Nor will I ever know what I meant to him…. He was, in every sense of the word, the shadow lover.”
Immediately after the affair, Ernaux wrote a book about it, Passion simple (1992), an essay-novella well under a hundred pages that topped the French best-seller list for months (translated in 1993 by Tanya Leslie as Simple Passion). In a footnote Ernaux explains why she has so little to tell us about the man she calls A:
I cannot describe him in greater detail, or supply information that might lead to his identification. He has “built his life” with determination; in other words, nothing is more important for him than to work towards building this life. The fact that I have different priorities does not give me the right to reveal his identity.
We do know that A is from somewhere in Eastern Europe, that he is married, and that he had asked Ernaux not to write about him.
From another footnote: “I am incapable of describing the way in which my passion for A developed day by day. I can only freeze certain moments in time.” In fact she had already described it, day by day, in thorough and often graphic detail, as it unfolded in real time, in a journal she kept from the beginning of the affair until several months after she last saw him.
Rereading her journal in early 2000, Ernaux writes in a preface to Getting Lost,
I perceived there was a “truth” in those pages that differed from the one to be found in Simple Passion—something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation. I thought that this, too, should be brought to light
—a thought that resulted in her decision to publish the entries, uncut and without any revision. Devoted exclusively to narrating the affair, Getting Lost is about five times as long as Simple Passion.
This time, however, Ernaux didn’t care that the man’s identity would be revealed. Indeed, she “no longer cared whether he was alive or dead.” In a pattern familiar to her (the “invincible course” in her relationships with men), she had reached “the most perfect stage of all”—the final stage, following separation from the beloved and a period of unmitigable suffering: “indifference.”
A is now S. As she explains, using only his surname initial—his real one this time—had nothing to do with protecting him, which in any case it could not have succeeded in doing. Rather, its “de-realizing effect…seemed consistent with what this man was to me: the embodiment of the absolute, of something which instills a nameless terror”—a terror that she connects variously with aging, death, abandonment, grievous loss, mourning, becoming ill, going insane.
S is from Moscow, a Soviet diplomat assigned to France, “a young apparatchik” who “mourned the time of Brezhnev and made no secret of his veneration for Stalin.” He and Ernaux meet when he is charged with accompanying a group of writers on a tour of the USSR. They spend the last night of the tour together in a Leningrad hotel, and after they return to France, where he lives in Paris and she in the nearby suburb of Cergy, their rocket blasts off.
She is forbidden to call him, either at home or at his office in the Soviet embassy. All she can do is wait for him to call and ask to come see her, almost always meaning later that same day: “He would arrive and stay just a few hours, which we spent making love. Then he left, and I would live in wait for his next call.” For the increasingly possessed Ernaux, this turns out to be less like living than dying.
S’s drive between Paris and Cergy is itself cause for anxiety: he likes to speed, flashing his lights; he drives when he’s had too much to drink, and he has shared with Ernaux his wish to die while behind the wheel. It might be days or even weeks between rendezvous—thirty-nine in all—and to her frustration he doesn’t always keep his promises to call. She is tormented by the fear that he doesn’t really love her, that he is growing tired of her: “Fear of not being beautiful enough, and especially of not giving him enough pleasure.” She is almost certain that she is not his only other woman. She considers breaking up with him before he can break up with her, but that is beyond her strength. From Simple Passion: “I knew that nothing in my life (having children, passing exams, traveling to faraway countries) had ever meant as much to me as lying in bed with that man in the middle of the afternoon.” In the perverse way of this kind of attachment, the beloved is both sickness and cure. The moment she is in bed with him again, there is only now, all past and future suffering forgotten.
Despite the many empty hours of waiting, her mania for S leaves Ernaux little energy for anything else. And this becomes its own torment: she can barely focus on her work for the correspondence courses she teaches, and she can do no serious writing at all. When she is angry at S for not calling, or afraid that he’s only with her for the convenient sex and for her reputation as a famous writer; when she chafes with envy of his wife, or suspects that his boyishness masks just another crafty womanizer (“Don Juans are all I’ve ever known”), she berates herself for wasting so much time on him instead of working on a new book. (Among other good reasons, she needs the money.)
She does find energy to start learning Russian and to reread Anna Karenina. And she goes out occasionally, including to social engagements also attended by S, sometimes with his wife, who is also his secretary at the embassy (and, to Ernaux’s relief, much less attractive and stylish than her), where he and Ernaux must take pains not to betray their intimacy. She records a few short trips as well. In Florence, on the steps of the Basilica of Santa Croce, she sees an inscription that will provide the epigraph to Getting Lost: “Voglio vivere una favola (I want to live a fable).” She is convinced that “this phrase is meant for me, right now.” (Ernaux has a superstitious side. She habitually gives money to beggars while making a wish that S will call.)
But long before seeing those words she has fantasized about the story she believes she can make with S by “living this passion to the limit.” “Is this the beginning of a ‘beautiful love story’?” she asks girlishly in an early entry. Later, reeling with joy at one of the rare instances when he says “I love you”—even if it’s only after she’s said it to him first—she declares, “I am very much in love, it’s a beautiful story.” More precisely, it’s a “beautiful Soviet love story.” She confesses that “it’s because he’s a Soviet that I love him. It’s the absolute mystery—exoticism, some might say…. I am fascinated by the ‘Russian soul,’ or the ‘Soviet soul,’ or by the whole USSR.”
When it’s all over she’ll still be able to say, “What I’ve experienced with S is as beautiful as a Russian novel.”
In another mood, she boils it all down: “He fucks, he drinks vodka, he talks about Stalin.” He is “boorish,” “misogynistic,” “somewhat, not to say very anti-Semitic,’’ and no intellectual. He is also undeniably her type, “part of that lineage of tall, blond and slightly shy men” whom she calls the only ones who “can put up with me and make me happy.”
He represents the most “parvenu” part of myself, the most adolescent too…. He’s that “man of my youth,” blond and unrefined…who fills me with pleasure (and whom I no longer wish to reproach for his lack of intellectualism).
Being “so wonderfully Russian” makes S “perfectly attuned to the peasant I still am, deep inside.” (“I come from a line of people who could have been Yellow Vests,” Ernaux has said in an interview. Her ascent from lower-class Normandy roots to privileged member of the cultural elite and the mixed emotions of guilt, shame, vanity, resentment, and alienation that such a passage inevitably entails are a recurring theme of her more than twenty books.)
I kept waiting for Ernaux to cite a certain famous passage from Proust, and about halfway through the journal it comes, when she imagines she might “get to the point where, like Swann, I’ll say that I wasted my time and money (almost true) for a man who, unlike Odette for Swann, was my type, but who was not deserving.”
She gets there all right. The nearer they draw to his mandatory departure from France, the more undeserving S seems: “I’ve wasted a year of my life, and money, on a man who asks as he is leaving if he can take the open pack of Marlboros.”
“Voglio vivere una favola,” she writes: “What a mockery.” And: “When I think that I started to learn Russian for a man!”
Unhappy birthday: forty-nine—“a hairsbreadth from…the scary decade.” She laments the signs of aging in her body and the brutal fact that says her chances for more of the kind of beautiful love story she craves are surely numbered.
One day she reckons the cost of what she’s spent on S, for cigarettes and whiskey and champagne as well as a series of lovingly chosen gifts, such as an expensive DuPont lighter. She is crushed when he fails to honor his promise to surprise her with a farewell gift, a photo or some other token to remember him by. The writing on the wall says he’ll return to Moscow without seeing her one last time, perhaps without even calling. Still, when it happens she cannot absorb the blow: “How is it that I can’t believe he could have left with no goodbye?”
“To relive the story of Anna Karenina was really the stupidest thing I could have done,” she confesses. But even after he’s abandoned her she tells how, the whole time she’s trying to go about her life, “I have the sense that I’m continuing to write and live out my beautiful love story.” (Are the italics meant to be ironic? I can’t tell.)
The only thing I see in our story now is an affair with an apparatchik who was very much in love with me for a month or two, before habit set in, and whose sole concern was that no one know about it, on account of his career.
Don’t be fooled. All he’d have to do is call—all she’d have to do is hear him say her name once in his Russian accent—and she’d forgive him everything.
The stress of the affair, with all its anguished waiting and uncertainties, its ricocheting emotions, ending with S ghosting her—failing even to respond to a friendly postcard she sends him while on a trip to Abu Dhabi (unless he never got it?)—provokes one of the biggest crises of Ernaux’s life.
The journal is relentless in its presentation of her pain and abasement, but no less so in its effort to dissect what just happened. Here is the same deep probing for truth, the same fanatical quest for self-awareness to be found in all Ernaux’s work. Though she sleeps poorly and often wakes exhausted, she struggles to remember and write down her dreams—many of them nightmares—and to interpret them. She resists any attempt to do what most people (and a million pop songs) would advise her to do, put the heartbreak behind and move on, but rather fixates on it. She must: she believes that only through understanding what happened will she be able to endure it, and that only by putting it down on paper can she hope to understand. For her, this is precisely what writing—self-narrative, specifically—is for.
She compares her unhappiness now to that experienced in other relationships, such as her doomed marriage, but perhaps most significantly in her first sexual encounter, as a naive but lustful teenaged girl, with the head instructor at a summer camp where she was a counselor. Another man, as she sadly recalls, “who did not come to say goodbye…as he’d promised to do.” His callousness, and the cruel shaming and spurning by her peers that her submission to him incites, are pressed like thorns into her consciousness. This trauma of 1958, with its long aftermath of depression and bulimia, and the ways it helped form both the woman and the writer she became, is the subject of Ernaux’s powerful Mémoire de fille (2016), translated by Strayer as A Girl’s Story in 2020.
Another memory goes back further, to a certain Sunday in June 1952: “the crack in my world” that divided the time before from the radically different time after twelve-year-old Annie, responding to screams from the cellar, witnessed her father holding on to her mother with one hand and wielding a scythe in the other. Near the end of Getting Lost, when she has finally accepted S’s disappearance and is contemplating what she wants her next book to be about, she records the words she “wrote down yesterday for the first time ever. ‘My father tried to kill my mother’”: the beginning of what would become La Honte, the book Ernaux published five years after Simple Passion and which was translated by Leslie as Shame in 1998. (In an earlier entry, musing about her relationship with S, Ernaux writes this seeming non sequitur: “Tonight, I know I have to write ‘the story of a woman’ over time and History”—no doubt an intimation of her most original and ambitious personal narrative, Les Années, her magnum opus of 2008, published as The Years in a translation by Strayer in 2017.)
About a month before S’s scheduled departure, she writes, “I am in a state close to the one I was in after my mother died.” But a sense of bereavement has always shadowed her passion. “Love and mourning are one and the same for me”: this comes on a day when the romance is still new. And, as her doubts about S grow and the end of the affair looms: “I know that I’m in mourning for a passion.” Being told by the switch operator at the Soviet embassy that S had returned to Moscow the day before is like being told all over again by a nurse of her mother’s death: “the same meaning, the same weight of horror.”
Yet another critical date in Ernaux’s life, marking yet another horror, is 1964. She is an unmarried twenty-three-year-old student when she becomes pregnant, more than a decade before abortion was decriminalized in France. After an attempt to perform an abortion on herself fails, she seeks out an angel-maker whose procedure causes complications that nearly kill her. Ernaux wrote about this gruesome experience in her first novel, Les Armoires vides (1974), translated by Carol Sanders as Cleaned Out in 1990, and again in a memoir, L’Événement (2000), translated by Leslie as Happening in 2001. A film version of the memoir, directed by Audrey Diwan, was released this year. I meant to see it but changed my mind after hearing that some audience members had fainted while watching it. Reading the book only made me cry.
Pregnant again shortly after her ordeal, and wanting neither to have another abortion nor to be an unwed mother, Ernaux chose marriage (“the only solution”). For her, the connections are clear:
This morning, while driving through the streets, I could not stop crying, as when my mother died, or after I had the abortion…. It is the main arc, the unifying thread of my life’s secret meaning. The same loss, not yet fully elucidated, which only writing can truly elucidate.
Elsewhere she calls the only purpose of her writing “to fill the void, to give myself a way to tell and endure the memory of ’58, the abortion, the parents’ love—everything that was a story of flesh and love.”
Like most diaries—and quite unlike Ernaux’s usual meticulously concise prose—Getting Lost contains its share of banalities, messy thoughts, inconsistencies, and unpolished sentences. It is often repetitious, and accounts of Ernaux’s dreams are no more exciting to hear about than anyone else’s ever are. But, to echo James Wood’s observation about reading Karl Ove Knausgaard—another writer consumed with his own intimate history—even when I was bored I was interested.
“I have always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward,” Ernaux writes in Shame, “the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others.” This calls to mind Orwell’s famous dictum that the only kind of autobiography to be trusted is the kind that reveals something disgraceful about its author. At the end of Getting Lost, Ernaux speaks of “this need I have to write something that puts me in danger.” Here I thought of her countryman and fellow autobiographer Michel Leiris, who likened literature to bullfighting and for whom the only writing worth doing demanded that the writer be a matador, willing to risk being gored. The means to this end, as stated in a preface to his confessional memoir Manhood (1939)—“To expose certain obsessions of an emotional or sexual nature, to admit publicly to certain shameful deficiencies or dismays”—are central to Ernaux’s literary project.
It seems paradoxical. When she was coming of age, Ernaux’s acute sensitivity to shame created countless opportunities for pain and humiliation. Even her accidental pregnancy is deplored as somehow connected to her working-class origins: “I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.” But as a writer she has always been not merely willing but driven to expose thoughts and behavior most people would be mortified to have become known. What is remarkable—and what, for me, makes her work more engaging than much contemporary autofiction (a term she rejects in regard to her own work for being too narrowly personal, preferring her coinage autosociobiographie)—is her ability to appear removed from her first-person narratives, to be writing objectively about her subjectivity, achieving transparency and, at the same time, an almost forensic detachment.
Such distance is not to be expected, of course, from an unedited journal written during a period of psychological tumult; however, it is on full display in Simple Passion. In any case, as a matador-writer Ernaux has always faced the bull’s horns. She is a master of close and graceful capework, and, as in any bullfight, it is the show of courage before danger and possible disaster that enthralls the spectator.
Equal to her need for danger in writing is the danger Ernaux courts in love. “This need for a man is so terrible,” she writes, “so close to a desire for death, an annihilation of self.” S not only inflames her lust but feeds her “old urge to destruction.” (“I longed for an accident, for death, as we were driving back to my place on the motorway last night.”) He might be sleeping with a harem for all she knows, but though they have every imaginable form of intercourse they use no protection: “I don’t give a damn about AIDS with him.” And as if this weren’t tempting fate enough, a mad “desire for pregnancy” seizes her and for one month she dares to stop taking the pill.
S is no brute, not a man she fears might harm her physically, and S&M is not a large part of their sex life. (She describes their “descent into sadomasochism” as “gentle, without violence,” even though afterward she is “bruised all over” and “at one point, I thought I was torn.”) But the “unbridled, violent intensity” of the affair leaves her emotionally destroyed. She is gored and gored and gored.
“It’s obvious,” she asserts, “that nothing is more desirable and dangerous than losing the sense of self, as with alcohol or drugs.” And as she concludes in Simple Passion, “Whether or not he was ‘worth it’ is of no consequence.” He was the horse she rode as close to oblivion as she could go. Another paradox: much as it might be part death wish, her passion is at the same time proof of a “lust for life” she has known since girlhood.
“It was the book I wrote about [my mother] that saved me,” she writes. And it is “because of him, for him, that I would like to write a very beautiful book” about S. But she can’t: “I promised him I wouldn’t—wrongly, no doubt.” No doubt. Well, she didn’t write a book about him; she wrote two books. In the preface to Getting Lost, she expresses the hope that, rather than see its publication as “an abuse of literary power, or even a betrayal”—rather than respond “with laughter or disdain”—S might “accept (even if he doesn’t understand) that for months, without knowing it, he embodied the principle, wondrous and terrifying, of desire, of death and writing.”
Wondrously unlikely. What I see here is not just wishful thinking, or an unconvincing form of self-justification (how does this hope square with her no longer caring if he is alive or dead?), but a writer unable to resist the urge to shape real life into art, to find a more aesthetic ending for “the S novel”—one that ennobles her ungallant little apparatchik, “a gigolo down to the last detail,” who guzzles her Chivas and goes off with her Marlboros and makes love without removing his socks.
Erotic splendor, as Ernaux keeps reminding herself, is always short-lived. She has been there before; she knows how it goes: from the sublime heights, the unstoppable decline into repetition, disillusionment, boredom, indifference. It is this reality that torments her from the very beginning of the affair, and against which she pits all her might: “I always make love as if it were the last time (and who’s to say it isn’t?).” There’s a reason so many great tales of passion end in tragedy. “I drove like a madman to get here,” says A in Simple Passion. It would have been perfect if that Russian pretty boy had died on a Paris motorway, racing to his lover’s arms, at the wheel of his car like he wanted.
November 3, 2022
The Illusion of the First Person
Reform or Abolish?
Ernaux’s superb 1988 book about her mother (translated by Tanya Leslie in 1991), whose death from Alzheimer’s in 1986 haunts Getting Lost. ↩